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Friday, July 2, 2010
Terrell Suggs talks about making films

By Sam Alipour
Special to Page 2

MIAMI -- Like most pro athletes with time, money and energy to burn, Terrell Suggs is a veteran of South Beach. The Ravens All-Pro linebacker has played in these clubs, been accosted by the highly aggressive hostesses at these sidewalk café, swam at their hotel pools with three hundred of his new closest friends and gawked at shapely body parts that aren't usually exposed in public but tend to be exposed along the white sand that borders this turquoise surf.

Media Blitz

This is what the pros do when they're not playing ball. They play in Vegas on the Beach -- hard.

But this past weekend, on his most recent trip to Miami, Suggs, as he'd put it, "ain't playing." He made the trip from his home in Arizona to sack the 14th Annual American Black Film Festival -- an event unlike the 13 that preceded it. This year's edition boasted a sports spin, a first-of-its-kind program called the Pro-Hollywood Initiative, designed to teach professional athletes about the motion picture industry and to connect these hopeful filmmakers with African-American veterans of Hollywood.

The inaugural PHI class: Suggs, Chiefs tackle Ikechuku Ndukwe, USA track & field alum Monica Cabbler and retired NFLers Hannibal Navies and Isaac Keyes, all of whom attended a masters class in filmmaking taught by Spike Lee before joining Lee for an intimate luncheon moderated by filmmaker-comedian Robert Townsend and featuring heavies like director John Singleton, Universal Studios VP Steve Williams, and ABFF and PHI founder Jeff Friday.

Over a family-style meal of steak and salmon, mentors and students engaged in chit-chat about film craft, the importance of networking and the pratfalls of financing, as well as weighty talk about race and the value of the Tyler Perry brand. "These athletes aren't joking around," Lee said. "They didn't have to sit in my class for three hours starting at 8am on a Saturday morning at South Beach, when most people are just getting in. They're serious about learning the business of cinema. We want to help them succeed."

The luncheon was capped by a screening of a film produced by one of the aspiring filmmakers seated at the table. "But I guess I'm not 'aspiring' no more," noted Suggs, CEO of Team Sizzle Worldwide, who's toting its rookie project, "sisters," a short film from writer-director Monica Mingo, a newbie discovered last year by Suggs at this very festival.

After unveiling his baby before the PHI crew, the man known as T-Sizzle was off to continue his workday, with Blitz on his heels. One short chauffeured drive later, we were at the Ritz Carlton, where Suggs would swap his sweat-drenched suit for a fresh one before heading to the official red carpet premiere of "sisters." But that screening wouldn't start for another three hours. So, Suggs did what men do when there's just a dash of downtime in a place like this: he posted up at the bar at the bustling Ritz pool, where he'd dish on his film and his PHI experience, talk a little football, and offer tips for South Beach first-timers -- like this Page 2 correspondent.


For your filmmaking debut, you decided to produce a rather offbeat short film. Why take this route?

You know what? The first reason, when I first read the script, was because it was cheap. (Laughs.) It was something where I could get my feet wet without costing me an arm and a leg. And I love dramas built on dialogue, like "sisters," which is about two sisters with different fathers, and the complexities of their relationship, and their struggle to love each other regardless. I didn't want to do anything cliché, anything with action or violence. And I didn't want to do anything sports related.

If you were to produce a sports film right out the gate, people would roll their eyes, wouldn't they?

Exactly. It's like Beyonce taking acting roles where she's singing. We've seen you do that a million times. Do something different.

Whoa, you telling me you wouldn't want Beyonce's career?

I love Beyonce! And I'd love to have her career. But you know what I'm saying. Everyone started taking her seriously in "Obsessed" because she wasn't singing in that.

For the young filmmakers out there who don't have your money but want to produce, care to say how little your short cost to make?

Well, I was taught that it ain't proper movie etiquette to say how much your film cost if you ain't generating no revenue. Just know that it didn't cost much. If you do your homework, work with the right people, you don't have to spend much money to get a quality film out there.

There's a market for feature length indy films, obviously. But what can you do with a short?

Well, now they sell shorts on iTunes. So we can try to get distribution that way. We just finished our second short film, "Marco Polo." And we're in pre-production on a third. So another idea is to put all of our shorts onto one DVD and sell that. Also, Showtime takes shorts. They show shorts on airplanes now. Sometimes filmmakers don't know all the avenues available to them.

This isn't some one-off project. You aim to be a full-time filmmaker with a full slate. Clearly it's not about the money for you. Why are you doing this?

First of all, I got into film because I love film. I love movies. I'm a fan of the "Oceans" films. Loved "Antwone Fisher," "Finding Forrester." "Usual Suspects" was very clever to me. Who doesn't love Keyser Soze? But I also have something to say. I ain't playing. I want to push the envelope. Sometimes, the world is so politically correct. "Marco Polo" is not. It's about a white woman in an interracial marriage with a black man. She wakes up one morning, and everything around her is kind of, well, black. Her offspring's black. The décor of her house is black. Everything, black. She's struggling to be white in a black world. What I'm trying to say is I want to make good, quality films. I don't want to stick to the clichés that we're known for, especially with the African American film genre.

Yeah, there was a lot of talk at the luncheon about Tyler Perry, and what he's done to help and hurt the genre. Where do you stand on that?

I think, from a business standpoint, he's a genius. I can't say -- I think some of his movies are good, some are better than others. There are two types of films you can make: you can make films for the art and craft or you can just make films to make money, for the commercial. It's hard for filmmakers to straddle that line, to do both. But he's done a tremendous job business-wise. As far as the art of his films? Well, everybody has an opinion. (Laughs.)

You're pulling your punch, man.

I respect Tyler Perry for what he's doing. He's got his own style. Martin Scorcese has his own style. Clint Eastwood and Jon Favreau have their own style. Tyler Perry does too. I want to straddle the line, make movies for the craft and make just a little bit of money. Not a lot. Just a little.

Changing gears: this is my first trip to Miami. And I'm kinda freaking out right now. Any tips?

(Laughs.) Have antiperspirant deodorant. Change your shirt at least three times a day. And, you know, enjoy it. Appreciate that blue water. Everydayand I'm fittin' to go do this right now -- I go on my balcony, put the world on mute and just stare at that ocean. Back in your world, there'll be chaos. It'll be noisy. You'll deal with problems. So, enjoy the ocean. Just let her talk to her. Now, I'm not saying I'm getting in that water --

Wait, after that poem you just gave me, you're not getting in the water?

I'm not a beach dude at all. (Laughs.) But I'm my father's son and my kid's dad when I'm staring at that ocean. I'm not Terrell Suggs, the football player or filmmaker.

Cool. So, I'm single. Where should I be: clubs or pools?

Both! This is South Beach. But it depends on the type of lady you're looking for. You looking for a fling or for love?

Um, both?

For a fling, pool parties are your thing. You want something more serious, go to a restaurant and then go to a lounge.

Nice. I'm staying on Ocean Drive, where the pool is swarming with dangerous women who speak in the most amazing accents.

Nice! Sounds right.

Finally, what's the game plan for tonight, before you head home tomorrow?

We're going to the premiere, then we're going to celebrate at dinner. But just showing it at the lunch was amazing. Sitting next to Spike, John and Robert, I could hear some of the mumbles. (Laughs.) Some of their feedback about the dialogue, I told my writer-director verbatim when were shooting it. I said, "Yo, we gotta change that!" She said, "no, we should keep it." But, look, everyone still enjoyed the film. But you want your film to be perfect, like "The Godfather." I guess that's why there's only one "Godfather." But I want to hear the criticism. I don't know everything about film. So, I'm going to just sit here, keep my mouth shut, and learn.

Sam Alipour is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and occasionally on Page 2. You can reach him at sam.alipour@gmail.com.